Colorado mountains
From Long-Term Data to Understanding: Toward a Predictive Ecology
2015 LTER ASM Estes Park, CO - August 30 - September 2, 2015

V-ART curriculum for teaching social-ecological systems to children in mountain communities

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Chris Ray
Jelena Vukomanovic
Patrick Bourgeron
Jane G. Smith
Robert Andrus

Devastating fire and flood events have recently affected mountain communities in the Colorado Front Range. Children in these communities have experienced first-hand the results of natural disturbances interacting with management actions in this landscape. Their experiences and needs present an excellent opportunity for outreach and education relating to the key social-ecological systems concepts of Vulnerability, Adaptability, Resilience and Transformability (V-ART). We collaborated with elementary school teachers in two Front Range communities to develop a V-ART curriculum for grades K-5 (ages 5-11). Our goal was to help young students connect V-ART concepts to their own experiences, in order to promote understanding and personal engagement. We began with in-class discussions focused on each students’ personal experiences with the interacting processes of drought, tree damage by insects, forest fire, flooding and climate change. We then reinforced and expanded their understanding of recent events using empirical evidence from tree cores and historical photos to exemplify the timing and outcome of natural disturbances in Front Range history. Students engaged in scenario-planning using watershed models and were encouraged to consider the kinds of natural and built features they would like to see in their communities. By visualizing different management scenarios, students were introduced to the idea of trade-offs and empowered as future decision makers. We followed classroom activities with field exercises emphasizing techniques in riparian restoration (floodplain design) and forest ecology (tree coring, counting tree rings and measuring tree diameters). Students completed the unit by identifying and discussing a specific example of V-ART in their landscape, allowing us to evaluate their understanding of V-ART concepts. Trees were especially useful as models for illustrating V-ART concepts to these young students. Our tree-related activities comprise a flexible curriculum that can be adapted to emphasize the natural disturbance and land management issues facing diverse communities.